After a decade of grassroots advocacy, my personal belief is that the greatest obstacle to positive change in the world isn’t corporations, the government, or the 1%, but lack of movement solidarity.
And no, I’m not pretending to be some modern day Moses bringing the divine truths down from the mountain. I’m just someone who has participated in the entire spectrum of the environmental movement — from mainstream to “radical,” on both coasts — who has witnessed a lot of unnecessary failures over the years, in large part because people can’t figure out how to work together.
Since my work these days focuses on the health and environmental impacts of dirty energy — nuclear, fossil fuels, and biomass/trash incineration — most of the specific examples I give in this article will come from that realm. However, chances are the “Ten Commandments of Solidarity” can also apply to your movement, whatever it is…unless it’s evil. In which case, it won’t, so don’t bother.
Now, I’ll admit that limiting this list to just ten points is arbitrary, so if you’ve got other “commandments,” please post them in the comments, where I’ll ignore them…Just kidding, I’ll read and carefully consider them, because that’s what solidarity looks like.
1. Thy movement shalt not have ambiguous goals
Whatever your movement, even if you can’t figure out exactly what you want, you can almost guarantee that your opposition can. For instance, a corporation that logs forests typically wants to cut down as many trees as it can and sell them for as high a profit as possible, for as long as is feasible. Its goals are crystal freaking clear — unlike the streams it silts up in pursuit of the dollar.
Unfortunately, Big Timber’s counterpart, the forest protection movement, doesn’t have the same clarity of purpose. Instead of these organizations banding together to achieve a concrete goal, such as passing a Congressional bill to protect National Forests, they have split off on literally hundreds of different missions under the banner of forest protection — including pushing for more logging.
This isn’t to say that simply declaring a specific goal, like banning private land clearcutting, means it will happen. In many cases, especially for some of the bolder goals, it might never. But what many — most? — forest protection groups have done is thrown in the towel before they even set foot in the ring. While it’s true that you can fight the good fight and still get knocked out, you can damn well guarantee defeat if you throw the fight before the bell is even rung.
In my opinion there’s one way, and one way only, to go about advocacy of any sort. And no one has explained it better than David Brower, the archdruid himself: “Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or our friends to win, then let someone else propose the compromise, which we must then work hard to coax our way. We thus become a nucleus around which activists can build and function.”
Suffice it to say, were Brower alive today, he’d have some, um, suggestions for the ever-shifting and seemingly arbitrary goals of the 21st century’s forest protection movement.
2. Thou shalt not contradict movement goals
A movement is only as powerful as its message. In fact, messaging is pretty much the only tool the grassroots has to enact change. When speaking to the media, commenting on policy, or protesting in the streets, make sure you aren’t advocating for anything that would stand in the way of your movement reaching its ultimate goals.
For instance, if your organization opposes biomass power plants because of their impacts on public health from air pollution, you can’t support slightly smaller and/or barely more efficient biomass facilities with even less effective pollution controls without invalidating your main talking point.
Which isn’t to say that you can’t have your priorities straight and focus on the biggest, most conspicuous 50-megawatt facilities and not devote many resources to, say, opposing a college’s 2-megawatt combined-heat-and-power facility. But, actually endorsing one of these incinerators not only contradicts your public health concerns, but makes the work of those in the movement who are fighting those facilities that much harder.
3. Thou shalt not confuse partial agreement with solidarity
It may seem easy to tell the difference between organizations and individuals who support your movement and those who do not, but it’s a common mistake within the grassroots and a major reason for a given movement’s seemingly inevitable fragmentation.
While it’d be nice to take the “big tent” approach and invite anyone claiming to be an ally into a pivotal role in your movement, the reality is that’s one of the best ways to ensure its demise. On the surface, they may appear to support all of your movement’s goals, but a deeper look may reveal otherwise. For instance, not everyone who opposes a particular nuclear power plant is necessarily against the entire concept of nuclear energy. While they may share the anti-nuclear movement’s goal of shutting down one specific facility, a closer look may reveal them to merely be in favor of a more technologically-advanced nuclear reactor.
This isn’t to say you can’t have friendly and respectful working relationships with those entities or individuals whose goals mostly, or even partially, overlap. But you are setting yourself up for disappointment if you actually expect them to have solidarity with your movement. A difference of opinion doesn’t always mean they are weak-willed or in the pocket of industry, but it usually does mean they are coming from a different place, and therefore it’s unlikely for any amount of sweet-talking or brow-beating to change their mind. Solidarity in the anti-nuke movement can only be achieved by those who are, well, anti-nuke. Opposing one facility while supporting another is still pro-nuke.
Of course, if they do reconsider their position, you can leave the past in the past and welcome them with open arms. But letting them in before they recant just weakens the movement. The best way to achieve movement solidarity is by creating it slowly but surely, building a strong foundation upon which to expand — instead of on shifting sands that can topple the entire structure.
4. Thou shalt not sidestep calls to action
If someone in your movement has an initiative, be it a rally, a call-in day to elected officials, or even an online petition, even if it’s not your favorite thing in the world, help them out with it at least a little bit. If you have constructive criticism to offer in regards to their project, or even have concerns that it doesn’t align with movement goals, then privately speak to them about the issue. But don’t shun them out of disagreement, or because it’s a bit of a hassle, as that will only foster hurt feelings, and be the beginning (or widening) of a rift in the movement.
If you’re jazzed about the proposal, then of course, offer as much support and resources as you can. But even if you’re lukewarm or just don’t have the means, it literally only takes a few minutes to spread the word via email or social media. Even if doing so doesn’t make or break the initiative (it might), rest assured that your ally will make note of your support, and keep your efforts in mind in the future.
This quid pro quo support of organizations is the currency of grassroots movements. Therefore, the movement aside, it’s in your own best interest to make sure your credit’s good.
5. Thou shalt not respond emotionally to criticism
The only thing more important than criticism from inside a movement is how you respond to it. Whether it’s a well thought out, point-by-point refutation or just a knee-jerk outburst from someone having a bad day, sit with the information — not the tone — before responding to it, so as to filter out the hurt and/or anger.
No matter what they’ve said, if they are a fellow movement member, chances are it’s not important enough to ruin your working relationship over. Many times, in fact, it’s simply a misunderstanding that can be cleared up quickly. But even if it’s not, responding in anger will only make the situation worse, guaranteed.
Criticism from outside the movement is another matter entirely, as in that case it’s coming from those who don’t share your mission, such as a gas industry lackey beating up on your anti-fracking stance. If it’s simply verbal abuse without any specific points being addressed, then feel free to ignore it. But if there is actually a coherent argument, it can be seen as a sign of weakness to ignore it entirely, especially if it’s done on a public forum.
If you choose to respond to an external critique, make certain you do so calmly and without malice, as you never know who might be watching the interaction. Don’t think of it as an attack you need to defend yourself against, think of it as an opportunity to educate the public on a particular point, and a model as how to respond to the opposition.
6. Thou shalt not ignore internal conflicts
For those of us who have bought into the whole evolution concept, we believe that modern day humans are descended from an ape ancestor. And while the Great Apes family is generally a social one, it is also one prone to frequent conflict and strife. Typically, these conflicts don’t end in bloodshed, but the disturbances are often enough to tear the social fabric.
In a movement, conflicts will always come up, and how they are dealt with by other members of the movement can often determine how much of a problem it will ultimately become. If the conflict is between individuals, it’s not always necessary to take a side, but it’s in the movement’s best interest for someone to intervene before things get out of hand.
It’s easy to step aside as tempers flare and mud is slung by telling yourself it’s a personal conflict and not your place to get involved. But if there’s turmoil inside your movement, guess what? You’re already involved. To decide not to act is taking action — it’s deciding to allow the fighting to get worse.
7. Thou shalt not turn a blind eye to attacks
If the work or character of fellow movement members is attacked from the outside, you have a duty to come to their aid. This doesn’t mean you need to respond to negativity with more negativity, nor does it mean you have to defend everything this person has ever said or done, but at the very least get involved in the discussion.
One unparried attack may signal weakness to the opposition which, like a predator searching for the easy kill, might embolden them enough to intensify the onslaught — and you just might be their next target.
8. Thou shalt not abuse thy power
Most of the interactions between grassroots movement members happen on a level playing field, where no one is really in charge of anyone else. But, in the case of managing someone as an employee or volunteer, a power dynamic comes into play.
The key thing is fairly obvious: make the best use of your (probably underpaid or unpaid) worker by being a good boss or manager. This means being on top of your organization’s priorities and maximizing the use of your worker’s time. Do your best to provide clear direction (which can include constructive criticism) while offering support, without bottlenecking their work.
If you have a legitimate and professional reason to fire this person, realize that there are very few people out there willing to devote themselves to the often thankless and undercompensated (or uncompensated) work of an advocate, and therefore — unless you honestly believe the person does more harm than good — it’s your responsibility to the movement to help them land on their feet (think severance pay and a recommendation) so they can smoothly make the transition to another role in the movement.
Nonprofit workers burn out very quickly and a lot of it has to do with poor management. If you’re not good at being in charge, there are many resources out there to help you learn how to get better. And if you’re not willing to improve, for the good of the movement, you might want to think about stepping down, so someone who can handle the responsibility can take the reins.
9. Thou shalt not align thy movement with a political party
One political party may be more of an obvious ally to your movement than another and it may be tempting to hitch yourself to their wagon. But while one party may be more likely to support your cause, such as the Democratic Party and the dirty energy resistance, chances are there are many, many examples of them harming your cause, like the left’s support for dirty biomass/trash incineration.
The greatest risk of a movement backing a political party or candidate is its disinclination to offer criticism when they do wrong. As we’ve seen with President Barack Obama, blind endorsement by the environmental movement has resulted in him taking its support for granted and given him the go ahead to start backsliding on his promises in regards to climate change.
Loudly and publicly applauding a politician’s good vote or strong policy should be encouraged, so long as you’re also critiquing the bad votes and weak policy.
10. Thou shalt not avoid personal relationships
A movement isn’t just about a cause, like replacing industrial-scale dirty energy with distributed clean energy, it’s about people. In our age of internet activism, it’s vital to take opportunities to connect with movement members as living, breathing creatures. Take some time to have some in-person meetings (if you’re far away from each other, go to a conference), share a meal or a beverage, or go on a hike together.
Nothing bonds a movement together tighter than personal relationships — you’re much more likely to do what it takes to achieve solidarity with an actual human being you care about than a disembodied avatar on the other side of a screen.
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